February 14th is the Annual Women’s Memorial March, a gathering and march of grief, love, and justice for missing and murdered women in the Downtown Eastside. In honour of the March, Dr Cheryl Bear, Director of Community Ministry at First United, writes about her relationship to community, missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, and the Downtown Eastside.
“Do you know her?”
The local newspaper was placed in front of me. In that paper was my friend Nina (pronounced Nigh-na not Nee-na) who I had met a year before in grade 8 at Prince George College, a high school in Prince George, BC which was run by the Catholic church. The article in the paper told me that Nina had been strangled to death in a downtown park with the cord of her own hoodie. That year, we were 15 years old.
Today I’m 52 years old. It’s only been the last couple of years that I stopped cutting the cord off my hoodies. That’s trauma. That’s how long trauma can last.
When I was 18 years old, a cousin my same age from another reserve was abducted and violently murdered. That time I felt like my soul walked away from me. I’ve never truly gotten over both of those experiences.
It is a tactic of war to attack and brutalize the women, that is how to subjugate a people. And the PSTD from so many losses often makes us feel like war survivors. If you ask an Indigenous person if they know a missing or murdered Indigenous woman or girl they will likely say “No,”
“…I don’t only know one.” This is normal life for us, but it shouldn’t be this way.
Both those girls were Indigenous. Both of those experiences taught me that the lives of Indigenous and marginalized women and girls were expendable, more expendable than the lives of others. What solidified this belief was when the evil Coquitlam pig farmer was at his worst on the DTES of Vancouver. When I was pastoring in the mid 90’s at Street Church near Main and Hastings the women in the community would warn me: “don’t walk alone on the DTES. There’s a serial killer here and nobody’s doing anything about it – nobody’s listening to us.”
Two of the women who attended our church and became friends of mine would later become his victims. Those were dark days. I don’t even want to name that horrible man.
The Women’s Memorial March is significant to me because it is a way to remember our lost sisters, to mourn them, and to re-dedicate ourselves to making a better future for our daughters, granddaughters and all our descendants. It’s tough to stand out in the cold and to march. It’s tough to even get out of bed somedays. There are days when these and other traumas sit on me, pin me down.
So, to gather, to walk, to listen, to feast … becomes an act of resistance. It is protest, it is peace, it is healing, and it is revolutionary. And as each of us walk we know we are helping carry the grief and trauma of others who have lost their loved ones.
By Cheryl Bear
Community Minister at First United Church
About the Women’s Memorial March
For the past 30 years, the Women’s Memorial March has been a gathering on February 14th to remember and grieve the loss of missing and murdered women, and an act of re-dedication to justice for those we love who are no longer with us.
Beginning at the intersection of Main and Hastings, family members gather to speak in remembrance of their daughters, sisters, mothers, cousins, aunts, nieces, and friends who were taken at by the hands of violence, poverty, racism, and colonialism. Drawing hundreds, the March proceeds through the Downtown Eastside and stops at locations where women were last seen or found. The community takes a moment to commemorate them. The March ends with a healing circle at Oppenheimer park and a community feast at the Japanese Language Hall.
The March is a moving, complex, and restorative act of community. Through the pain, it offers healing. The first March took place in 1992 in response to the murder of a Coast Salish woman on Powell Street; her name is not spoken out of respect for her family’s wishes. Out of hopelessness and anger, the March was organized by Indigenous women local to the Downtown Eastside to “express compassion, community, and caring for all women in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, Unceded Coast Salish Territories”. This is why the March occurs on Valentine’s Day, as a demonstration of love.
Learn more about the 2021 March.